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Monday, July 18, 2005

Player Profile: Chase Utley 

Every Phillies season the blogging community picks out a particular player to adore. Last year it was Pitcher Ryan Madson. This year it is apparently Second baseman Chase Utley. Bloggers across the Phillies blogosphere have heaped praise on the Phillies second-baseman. e.g, Jason Weitzel at Beerleaguer went so far as to make the argument that the Phillies real first-half MVP was Chase, not Bobby Abreu.

Phillies bloggers loved Ryan Madson in 2004 because he was the ray of sunshine in a pitching rotation that was cloudier than a nor’easter. While Madson was mowing down opposing batters, the Phillies pitching corps surrendered 214 home runs and generally got shelled. Madson surrendered just six home runs in his 77 innings pitched, about half per nine innings than the Phillies corps surrendered.

Why Is Chase Utley so great? And why do bloggers love him so much? Because Chase is doing what the rest of this team cannot: hit the ball.

Chase is having a great year at the plate: .397 OBP, .528 slugging percentage, 32 extra-base hits (12 of them are home runs), and 56 Runs Created (third on the team). He’s running forty-seven points ahead in his OBP (on a team that is already one of the top OBP teams in the MLB), and .112 points ahead on his slugging percentage on a team that badly needs some power. In fact, Chase is actually leading the team in slugging percentage:

Utley: .528
Burrell: .521
Abreu: .509
Howard: .453
Lofton: .424
Team: .416

Impressive. But what is impressing bloggers far and wide is when you consider the tremendous step Chase has made over his last two seasons:

2003: .322 / .373
2004: .308 / .468
2005: .397 / .528

OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
SLG (Slugging Percentage): Power at the plate. (Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage)

The jump in OBP is tremendous, but I’ll get to that in a second: the steady improvement in slugging percentage (.095 from ’03 – ’04, .060 from ’04 – ’05, .155 overall) is of note. Chase is developing his swing and turning into the power hitter all projected him to be. His OBP is a new and mildly surprisingly phenomenon … Consider: when Jack Wilson got selected to the 2004 All-Star team he was the recipient of a tremendous increase in batting average (Wilson went from a .256 BA to .308 in ’04) while his OBP practically remained the same (.303 in ’03, .335 in ’04). So Wilson’s struggles in 2005 aren’t surprising: he got a bunch of lucky hits and returned to be the ballplayer everyone figured he’d be: a solid but unspectacular hitter in the .250 – .260 range … Chase’s new ability to get on base is a product of a savvy eye. He has nearly doubled the number of times he draws walks at the plate:

Walks per plate appearance (BB/PA):
2004: .052
2005: .115

Chase got 15 walks in 267 At-Bats in 2004 and with 271 under his belt this season he has 36 already. This is a skill that Chase will kept with him for a long time to come: power hitting comes and goes, but a good eye stays constant. Look at Jim Thome: whatever his struggles at the plate with power, his OBP remains tremendous.

Speaking of power, Chase has got tons of it, unusual for a second baseman. Traditionally a position for light-hitting utlity-types, Chase has transformed the pivot into a power spot. Check out Chase’s ISO stats:

2003: .134
2004: .202
2005: .217

ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.

Not your average second baseman. In fact, Chase is leading all NL 2B’s in slugging percentage:

Utley (PHI): .528
Kent (LA): .505
Biggio (HOU): .488
Giles (ATL): .454

Let’s move on and consider what second basemen are expected to do: field the ball. Typically the second-baseman is your second-most important fielder, after the shortstop, because he sees the second-most balls into the field of play. He also has to help turn the 6-4-3 or 4-6-3 double play. In short, the second baseman has to be on his toes. Chase is pretty good here as well. Consider Chase’s Zone Rating:

NL 2B’s:
Grudzielanek (STL): .875
Utley (PHI): .857
Counsell (ARI): .856
Castillo (FLA): .835

That’s pretty darn good. ZR measures a player’s defensive “zone” by how they do with balls they “should” get to, rather than fielding percentage, which measures how they do with balls they do get too.

Fielding Win Shares:
2004: 2.0
2005: 2.4

Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 Innings:

2004: 3.89
2005: 3.78

Conclusions: Let’s remember Bill James 2005 assessments for Chase:

OBP: .333
SLG: .478
HR: 24
RBI: 103

I think he’ll far exceed them. Chase is more than just the blogging communities favorite player. He’s the second-best Phillie this season, after Bobby Abreu, and probably the sole reason why this team hasn’t sunk out of playoff contention just yet. With his glove and his bat, he’s clubbing the big extra-base hits and turning the double play, the Phillies season rests on Chase glove. Consider this: in just half a season he has already come close to tying his career total in Win Shares:

Win Shares
2003: 5
2004: 8
2005: 11

Is Chase the Phillies MVP? I dunno, but he is their MIP, their Most Important Player.

On another note … With yesterday’s 8-4 victory over the Florida Marlins the Phillies are squarely in the hunt after taking three of four from their arch-nemesis from the last two seasons. This team is still in the hunt.

For tomorrow: I’m working on a piece about Moneyball I hope to finish soon. Stay tuned.

Utley's development this season has been spectacular, all right. It also looks like he's figuring out lefthanded pitching.

Also watch him explode out of the batter's box to get down the line on a groundball. He hustles it down harder than anyone I've ever seen maybe.
(Sorry, inadvertantly posted this comment at the July 15 post. It should be here). And don't overlook Utley's willingness and ability to do what is necessary to advance the runner to set up scoring opportunities. On Thursday, l believe it was, Utley hit a funky chopper just over the pitcher towards second base which advanced the runners who subsequently scored on a hit and sac fly (if I recall correctly). And Utley did that with 2 strikes. He doesn't panic, shortens his swing and gets the job done.

Let's also hope that Howard sticks around too. I see in him the same kind of patient, thoughtful approach to hitting.
I have watched Chase for the past 4 years and have seen how much he has grown. The difference between him and other players is that he has so much heart. He truly loves to play, it's like watching a kid playing little league. It is so exciting to watch him play. He gives 150% every day and he isn't afraid to take risks. He makes things happen!!!!
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